As part of the brilliant HouseParty event, organised by Matt Leach of HACT and Esther Foreman of the Social Change Agency, I recently live streamed the second Housing Question Time. During the discussion, Nick Atkin, Chief Executive of Halton Housing Trust said something I have heard him say before, namely that social housing providers should be very worried about how they are going to collect the rents which currently go directly from Government to landlord when these payments are rolled into Universal Credit and made to the tenant not to the housing provider. See Nick say this below:
Nick points out that 75% of social housing landlords’ income is thus potentially at risk, and that, unless landlords find ways of ensuring that their tenants can transact with them online, they will have to employ a lot more staff to collect rents.
This is a key reason why Halton has been at the forefront of both shifting its transactions online and encouraging the digital inclusion of its tenants through its Digital First initiative. Here is the archive of the live streamed video from one of the Digital First open sessions http://tmblr.co/Z7HaYy1S5WHo7.
Digital Inclusion Strategy
I am often asked for what I think should be the key elements of a Digital Inclusion strategy. My first answer to this is that, although the end game of digital inclusion is to ensure tenants are able to transact online with their landlord, as well as claiming benefits and seeking work online, that should never be the route into the online world. If it is, they will see the internet as a chore not a benefit to their lives. My approach is very much to demonstrate that the internet brings a lot of joy and increased human interaction into people’s lives, and that those who are not online are missing out.
The first element of any digital inclusion strategy should be for the organisation itself to be active and effective on social media. I often ask why organisations expect their customers to do digital when they don’t do it themselves. A good social media presence on the part of the organisation gives their customers reasons to be online, to keep in touch with what is going on around them. And if that social media strategy includes (as it should) online coverage of community and social events, people will want to join in, share your content with their friends, and get active in the social media sphere themselves.
A lot of organisations make the mistake of making digital inclusion the responsibility of a small group of staff in a dedicated unit. The biggest potential digital inclusion resource any organisation has is its staff, in particular the staff who have day-to-day contact with tenants and residents. One of the big issues I come across is that sometimes frontline staff can act as a barrier to digital inclusion as they are not comfortable with digital tools themselves, so they are fearful of the implications of letting the people they work with loose on them. Thus (as I outlined here) it is essential that frontline staff are both enthusiastic about digital tools themselves and imbued with a passion to pass their skills and interest on to others.
Of course, staff are not the only potential digital champions, and it is vital that tenants / customers are included in these efforts. The great benefit of enrolling tenants as digital champions is that they can act as informal support networks for their neighbours. It also breaks through that “this is not for the likes of me” barrier.
Much digital inclusion activity falls at the hurdle of connectivity. Having a telephone landline can be a minority status in some social housing areas, and, although increasing numbers of tenants access the internet via mobile devices, many don’t have smartphones, and many of those who do run them on Pay-as-you-Go deals which can have minimal or no data allowances. There are some deals which offer cheap, basic broadband connections, but these can still be out of the reach of some tenants, and, of course, they usually rely on the property having a landline connection. Increasing numbers of landlords are implementing free or cheap wifi networks which can blanket areas with coverage and offer access at home as well as on the move. This is being recognised as a vital tool in the drive to increase online transactions.
Halton Housing is one organisation which has been experimenting with giving devices to tenants, on condition that they use them to conduct transactions with the landlord rather than face-to-face or telephone contacts. They have researched which cheap Android tablets work most effectively and have concluded that it is cost-effective to give away the tablets with the cost being more than met in savings on transaction costs. There is growing evidence that tablets are the device of choice, particularly for people who have never used a computer. There are other sources of low cost IT equipment, particularly recycled computers, which can be an important resource for digital inclusion.
Particularly when working with older people, I have found that the more you can present the internet through familiar equipment, the more likely it is to be accepted. A low-cost tablet connected to a TV via a device such as a Chromecast (which only costs £30) can help them explore the online world in a familiar environment.
Normalising the Internet
Walk into any city or town centre cafe or coffee shop and you will commonly see people tapping away at laptops and tablets. Walk into any community venue on a social housing estate and it is most unlikely you will see anything similar. Many social housing tenants can live their lives isolated from the day-to-day use of the internet that others take for granted. This is why we ran the Our Digital Planet project which toured shopping areas in cities around the country and, by means of a giant photography exhibition, put uses of the internet in front of people’s faces. And it is why the HUGO Bus arrives in Leeds neighbourhoods with a (metaphorical) fanfare and broadcasts free wifi to the locality. We have to find ways of demonstrating the centrality of the internet to modern life to those who have not yet caught on to its importance.
Breaking down fear and suspicion
This is not just about allowing people to have fun online and talk to their distant relatives on Skype. It is not even solely about encouraging them to pay their rent via an app or use Universal Jobmatch to apply for employment. It is a much, much wider agenda than that. Great advances are in prospect to people’s wellbeing through the use of telehealth and telecare equipment which can help people be healthier for longer and to stay in their own homes rather than in hospitals or care homes. And smart meters and energy systems can greatly reduce people’s bills as well as contributing to the fight against climate change. But the use of such technology greatly depends on people’s acceptance of them. Many non-internet users are reluctant in the extreme to share any data, even anonymised data online. They have to be shown how to keep safe online, and that sharing data doesn’t bring the world crashing down around them. These are essential steps towards achieving acceptance that sharing the data which telehealth, telecare, and smart energy systems require is a good thing, not a social evil.
Making it stick
Far too many digital inclusion initiatives rely on short term interventions which are assumed to have done the trick. But this often leaves people high and dry with no support and seemingly little incentive to take their internet use further. People need to be supported long term to ensure they can continue and progress with their online activity. That’s why Digital Champions’ networks are essential. It takes time to develop a fluency with internet use, and that is something which is often missing from short term initiatives.
The good news is that there is growing recognition that these steps are vital to the long term financial health of social landlords, as well as to the wellbeing and prosperity of tenants. The bad news is that there are still far too many who are not taking actions in these directions, and time is running out to get it right.
If you’d like to talk about how I might help your organisation in these areas, please drop me a line at email@example.com or tweet me @johnpopham